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  Number 325 | Agosto 2008
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Latin America

The Left and Human Rights: A Contribution to the Debate

The freeing of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other people who were kidnapped and held captive by the FARC, plus the circumstances this guerrilla group now faces, have generated an intense debate on our continent. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega insists on referring to the FARC guerrillas as “brothers” and defending their methods, at the same time proposing himself as a mediator who can bring peace to Colombia, triggering a debate more pertinent in Nicaragua than in the rest of Latin America.

Iosu Perales

Fidel Castro wrote in Granma’s July 3 edition: “Out of a basic sense of humanity, we were pleased by the news that Ingrid Betancourt, three North American citizens and other captives had been freed. Those civilians should never have been kidnapped, nor should members of the army been held as prisoners in jungle conditions. These were objectively cruel acts. No revolutionary purpose could justify them.”

Five days later he wrote once again: “I energetically and frankly criticized the objectively cruel methods of kidnapping and holding prisoners in the jungle. But I am not suggesting to anybody that they lay down their arms, since those who did so during the past 50 years did not survive the peace. If I am bold enough to suggest anything to the FARC guerrillas, it is simply that they declare to the International Red Cross, through whatever route they choose, their willingness to unconditionally free the hostages and prisoners still in their power. I don’t expect them to listen to me, but I am fulfilling my duty to say what I think. Any other conduct would only serve to reward disloyalty and betrayal.”

Hugo Chávez has gone even further by publicly stating that now is not the time for armed struggle, but rather for political struggle to win governments at the voting booths.

A necessary debate

I do not wish to cite the names of Fidel and Chávez to support my ideas, which these two Latin American leftist leaders might not share. I only refer to their declarations because consciously or not they have triggered a debate. Nor do we need their permission to initiate a needed discussion. But both interventions have the obvious virtue of having broken the Left’s longstanding inertia with respect to remaining silent about abuses or serious errors committed by guerrillas or political parties of the same political persuasion under the pretext of not giving fuel to the enemy. This perverse dialectic has frequently led us to relinquish the free thinking that doesn’t make deals with double standards.

The positions held by some on the Left are significant. Prior to the freeing of Ingrid Bentancourt and the other 14 captives, they took the following position: “She’s bourgeois, the 3 North Americans are mercenaries, and the other 11 are soldiers.” This sort of excuse is a way to avoid any ethical or political examination of kidnapping as a tactic, whether used as an instrument for obtaining funds, or as a political-military strategy. It comes as no surprise, then, that there have been some historical problems between the Left and human rights. The Right has even more problems on that score, but that’s not my reason for writing these notes.

A disingenuous relativism

To say that the Left has—that we have—arrived late to the issue of human rights, having been stuck for decades in the mindset that individual rights were a tool of the bourgeoisie, would not be a shocker. Those of us who thought of ourselves as Leninists did not subscribe to the principle of universal individual rights. On the contrary, we only saw discrimination and inequality among the subjects of such rights, and that’s how we understood that “the people” would need to dismantle the bourgeoisie’s political rights in order to defend their own interests.

We also believed that the bourgeoisie were not only those who belonged to a particular social class, but also anyone who “thought in a bourgeois manner.” Thus, we had an enormous ability to classify people and groups. I’m not stating anything new by recalling that our view of popular or socialist democracy was plagued by contradictions regarding individual liberties and political rights. Thus, our conception of defending human rights was not universal, but rather depended upon the regime to which we were referring. What was intolerable in Pinochet’s Chile or Argentina under military rule was not necessarily intolerable in other scenarios. Have we on the left never wondered how the failure to consider the universality of rights left the door open to all types of restrictions? Where does this not-so-innocent relativism come from?

In its theory of revolution, a conservative leftist ideology that is tied to utilitarianism sees morality as a sub-product of political activity. It bases its moral evaluations on knowledge of historical laws, which is to say that the end justifies the means. But certain means pervert the ends, to the point of making them unrecognizable.

That’s why this Left begins to think that regardless of the subjective value of morality, progress or other great principles, these beautiful concepts have no influence whatsoever on the shifts and changes of human societies. In and of themselves, they are powerless to achieve even the smallest change. Change will only come from the accumulation of forces, which can’t pay attention to moral aspects, in the same way that humanism is an element that should not be at the command post of any struggle.

This Left believes that social evolution is determined by other, less sentimental considerations. Its causes are found in the economic structure, the mode of production and the changes that come from the distribution of wealth and, therefore, the formation of classes and their hierarchy. And when these changes are produced, it isn’t because they obey a lofty ideal of justice, but rather because they conform to the economic order of the time and the class struggle. In this vision of the course of history, these factors are always more important than any ethical or moral considerations.

Humanism v. “historic necessity”

When I discuss these things right now, I’m not debating the pertinence of armed struggle but rather talking about the violation of human rights by Colombian guerrillas. Regarding the kidnappings, I’m likely to find someone who will respond, “But it’s because the enemy commits worse crimes,” To which my answer is, “We don’t want to be like the enemy or appear like them, not even in war. Otherwise, what society will we be building? How could we then propose a fair, egalitarian and free society?“

Obviously there are still sectors of the Left whose orthodox Marxism is completely complacent about the FARC’s armed tactics, although they aren’t necessarily happy about them and are aware of the FARC’s diminishing popularity. But it’s possible to be a rebel and also be critical of the FARC. It’s an error to argue that being a radical means not criticizing the FARC, and trying to link the two words “rebel” and “FARC” as synonyms is simply a tremendous error.

The adoption of great social objectives has also included a high dose of politicism, in contrast to humanism which seems a more ethereal and weaker sentiment. Humanism as a philosophy, moreover, has been a certain nuisance to militant Marxism, which paid no attention to the means as long as the ends were achieved. Nonetheless, idealism, risk and abnegation have always been incentives for a leftist culture with a revolutionary mission.

Radical humanism rebels against the fatalism of historic necessity, which has long been the source of schematic thinking, and turns people into the mere members of organizations that are the depositaries of the established and more or less cloned revolutionarily-correct ideals and norms of conduct. There should be no sacred mission, no redeeming mandate that governs our actions beyond our own will. We must decide what is desirable and the social benefit for which we struggle. This is what makes us critical beings, capable of looking at ourselves self-critically, without complexes and without self-censorship derived from a fear of “giving arguments to the enemy.” This is why we can’t accept that 700 people still held captive by the FARC and close to 300 more by the other Colombian guerrilla movement, the ELN, is an inevitable reality, a destiny to which we must silently resign ourselves.

A necessary look at Nicaragua

On this point, the words of FSLN legislator Alba Palacios, authorized to speak in the name of the governing Sandinistas, lack any basis. She said: “Kidnappings, in this case by the FARC, have social and political reasons. They are a means for exerting pressure that has been used to free other Colombian brothers held captive in prisons by the Colombian Army for many years.”

In the first place, 95% of those still being held captive by the FARC and the ELN are there to obtain economic ransom. In the second place, among the minority of captives who could be exchanged for prisoners are a good number of civilians who, according to international human rights conventions, should not and cannot be military objectives.

How can we remain silent about hundreds of people kidnapped, many of whom are still being held solely because their relatives can’t obtain eight hundred or a thousand euros to pay the guerrillas’ ransom? These are the invisible kidnappings that receive no attention from the Colombian government or any international organizations. In her declarations, Palacios is either demonstrating political irresponsibility or unacceptable and inhumane values. If remaining silent about those who violate human rights shouldn’t be a common leftist practice, justifying such actions is even worse; it’s tacit consent. Clearly, the FSLN doesn’t seem to hold up human rights as one of its banners, or civil rights as a government watchword. The recent cancellation of the legal status of two political parties reeks of the same odor as the FSLN’s position regarding the FARC’s actions: little commitment to people’s freedoms or civil rights.

Has the Left—the conservative version expressed today in Nicaragua and in the FSLN—ever considered that the freedom to which we’re all entitled is the same even for someone who holds different ideas? Rosa Luxemburg herself believed this, which leads me to think that we’re experiencing a crisis of questions on the left, and are hard put to come up with answers. Of course, opening up the closet of questions could be an act of subversion against a vision that has all the answers, for now and forever. Doubts? Who wants to have doubts? It’s much simpler to declare that we need to eliminate in one fell swoop all the political parties that respond to the “interests of the oligarchy and imperialism,” the “traitors” and “sellouts”, as the Nicaraguan President has done over and over again.

What is certain is that the people of Nicaragua, with decisive assistance from the Left, brought democracy in 1979. Yet after so many years, part of this same Left has been slow to understand that freedom, democracy and human rights are values in and of themselves, and not only instruments. The Left cannot treat these values as relative, because the more it does, the more distorted it becomes.

It’s certainly dramatic that only a short time ago, during the Cold War, the world view of many leftists situated human rights and democracy on the side of the self-called “free world” that was fighting against the socialist bloc. But now, it’s pathetic to see that a segment of Nicaragua’s Left hasn’t progressed from this position, thus providing a great service to the Right by leaving to it the banners that should be held high by those trying to change the world for the better.

Morality as an unrelinquishable principle

It has to be clearly stated that morality refers to the values that must inspire our behavior and the nature of our objectives. Socialism as a goal has much more to do with morality than with science. In reality, science has little to offer to socialism, since it operates in another sphere. The concept of “scientific socialism” reflects confusion between scientific propositions and the normative propositions that refer to the conduct considered ethically valuable.

There’s always an implicit moral tendency within leftist organizations. The struggle is always driven by more than just the satisfaction of knowing that one is supposedly walking on the side of history. Another aspect is the extent to which moral values are assumed as such. The sphere of these values hasn’t been given much importance in the studies and discussions carried out by revolutionary forces. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that the humanistic and spiritual motives some militants confessed to were seen as a sign of weakness by most of the others. This implicit moral tendency combined with an explicit failure to consider morality is responsible for the Left’s schizophrenic response to human rights. Nonetheless, for the Left, human rights must be non-negotiable. This point must be the litmus test, which is why I can’t agree with the words of an illustrious 19th-century Marxist thinker: “Any means necessary, from the most violent to the most gentle, seem good to me if they achieve our ends.”

Revolutionary humanism proposes turning some classic leftist concepts upside down. Among these is the one that considers communism the kingdom of liberty and the end to contradictions. It is impossible that a system and a category can put an end to history, and assume that humanity has finally triumphed over nature and itself. It’s more interesting to conceive of it an inspiration to greater equality, a new world, and a more perfect justice, all of which are connected to the suffering of the downtrodden, as noted by the great Walter Benjamin.

Humanism expressed as a critique and a construct can only be developed from a radical position that does not tolerate any kind of oppression, wherever it may come from. The desire for happiness beats hard in the humanist heart. All revolutionary struggle seeks the greatest possible end to unhappiness. And this means humanizing a dehumanized society, humanizing politics and unilaterally humanizing violence when the oppressed are obliged to use it. It means zero tolerance for the violation of human rights, no matter who is responsible.

The vanguard as a problem

If the FARC guerrillas view Colombia as a place that should benefit all Colombians; if they are angered by all the types of injustice that afflict their country; if they live their people’s destiny with the intensity of those who consider themselves part of that people; and if they are dreaming of creating a new Colombian reality, then how can indiscriminately kidnapping people and causing such suffering be a method used in their struggle? Or could it be that they no longer represent the hope of a liberated Colombia?

I’m afraid that what’s being expressed here is the famous problem of the self-sufficient vanguard. In other words, we’re not dealing with a group of bad people within the FARC, but rather with an organization that has followed the dictates of Leninist culture and considers itself the incarnation of the interests of the working class and the Colombian people, recognized interpreter of a subject previously converted into an entelechy to work in its name. The FARC considers itself a vanguard that unerringly knows society’s ultimate and real interests, and is obliged to act in a specific way; the kidnappings are a necessary part of its actions. In the words of Spanish thinker Eugenio de Río: “The only thing left for me to say is that this is a pre-modern view, improper for the century in which we live. Such a notion of the (superior) vanguard implies an inferior society.”

Álvaro Uribe’s security
policy is a crime of state

To speak about kidnappings is to speak about human rights, and in this, there should be no impunity. If you close your eyes to the responsibility that lies with the guerrillas, then you have no authority to denounce the government and paramilitary forces. And I think there are many of us who would like to keep raising our voices, with legitimacy, against President Uribe’s policy of “democratic security” and crimes of state.

Just a few statistics. The Colombian Lawyer’s Commission and the Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP) indicate that between July 2002 and June 2007, 12,547 victims of extralegal executions, political homicides and forced disappearances were registered, and that in 7,183 of the deaths the author of the crime is known. Guerrilla groups were responsible for 1,819, paramilitary groups for 4,174 and the army and police for 1,190. Very few of those responsible for forced disappearances have been criminally charged, and the bodies of only a few of the victims have been found.

The National Movement of Victims of State Crimes estimates that at least 15,000 people have been disappeared by the paramilitary groups. This war has also produced another type of human rights violation on a massive scale: forced relocation. In 2006, the United Nations Secretary-General’s representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Walter Kälin, estimated the number of internally displaced in Colombia at more than three million.

Peace with human rights

I firmly believe in a negotiated settlement in the framework of a regionalized peace, in which dialogue and negotiation hold starring roles. Hopefully Ingrid Betancourt will dedicate herself to this goal as well.

Today, there’s a general perception that Colombia is living a vilified war, stuck in a tunnel or labyrinth that can only be exited through a radical political change. The false belief that the war can be resolved through military or repressive means—or the equally false hope that it can somehow be resolved without dialogue, negating the route of dialogue—needs to be replaced. Moreover, those who still think the armed struggle is the road to a future in Colombia, and who prefer to continue the status quo, are also wrong. We’re hoping for a new, irreversible scenario, a time of peaceful dialogue, in which the different parties agree to respect the human rights and fundamental liberties of all people, putting an end to the human suffering caused by the war. A time for peace, dialogue and fair solutions because we’re convinced that political and democratic methods are the only route to an end of the conflict. A time for peace, because the people—of today and of the generations to come—demand the opportunity to coexist with each other and live with a government that defends human rights.

Four cardinal points

We see four cardinal points that will determine our progress toward this new scenario: the immediate, the necessary, the democratic and the hopeful.

The immediate. This is the humanization of the conflict and respect for human rights. The main defeat the conflict can inflict upon us is dehumanization. Thus, for ethical, moral and political reasons, we must clearly and firmly defend the culture and practice of human rights as an absolute ethic.

The necessary. This is dialogue without exclusions, which addresses Colombian society’s social and political problems, committing the parties to new policies that make amends for the injustice, oppression and exploitation.

The democratic. This is listening to people and taking them into consideration, actively involving civil society and its organizations in making decisions about the nation’s structural problems and their solutions.

The hopeful. This means attending to things of a constructive nature, not trusting policies supported by authoritarianism and militarism that only serve to prolong the conflict, fear, institutional terror and destruction.

We need a new Left

Making progress toward these four cardinal points requires creating opportunities for promoting concrete democratic projects that help develop a majority will demanding peace. Hopefully the Alternative Democratic Pole will be that political response that can contribute to an ethical understanding of the conflict, promoting dialogue from a new viewpoint that wants to make Colombia a fairer and more democratic country, living in peace.

To do this, we need to promote strategies that increase the number of social actors involved in building peace, by mobilizing citizens and identifying and/or involving actors who, for one reason or another, are key: ethnic communities, those who share the thinking of the armed groups, trade union organizations, women’s movements… and later, the international community. We need a new hope for a new time. And we need a new Left to build this new time.

Iosu Perales is a political analyst who works with the “Peace and the Third World” development NGO.

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